• Home
  • Africa
  • Tourism a key to Nelson Mandela legacy

Tourism a key to Nelson Mandela legacy


A bust of a youthful Nelson Mandela adorns the famous Victoria & Alfred Waterfront in Capetown, three kilometres from Robben Island. On Thursday, Mandela passed away at age 95. (Julia Pelish/Vacay.ca)

Adrian Brijbassi
Vacay.ca Managing Editor


A mural in Soweto close to Vilakazi Street depicts Nelson Mandela during three momentous occasions of his life: his 90th birthday, his election as president and his selection as the Nobel Peace Prize winner. (Julia Pelish/Vacay.ca)

Naively, I arrived in South Africa three years ago thinking it would be difficult to find anyone in the nation who didn’t love Nelson Mandela. The first person who I interviewed taught me a lesson. “I didn’t like Mandela much,” said the man, a former diplomat who asked not to be identified when he spoke about his political career. He was present with Mandela at numerous high-level meetings in the 1990s, during the leader’s presidency. “Behind closed doors, he had little tolerance for dissent or opposing views. But I do respect him, tremendously. How could anyone not?”

So, I was asking the wrong question. For all the idolatry around him, Mandela was human and susceptible to the range of emotions as everyone else. Rather than inquiring about the ubiquitous adoration for him, I should have sought a person in the nation who didn’t appreciate what he did for South Africans of all ethnicities. Such a person I didn’t find; however, somewhere there must exist a dissenter, a boorish individual opposed to the ideas of anti-apartheid and the Rainbow Nation. Largely, though, South Africa is a nation of Mandela acolytes, white, brown, and black.

“It’s like meeting an angel,” Sebastien Qweshe, a driver at the posh Michelangelo Hotel in Johannesburg told me about his encounter with the Nobel laureate.

Maria Sekwane, a member of the African National Congress, remembered February 11, 1990, when Mandela was released after 27 years in prison, as a night of unmatched celebration. “We sang and we danced, but we were also expecting that we would soon have to fight,” she recalled. “For days we were collecting money to buy guns and then Mandela said each and every gun must go into the sea. We couldn’t believe it. But he insisted that had to be the way. That we could not look backward and that had to happen for the country to go forward.”

Her friend Gloria Pikitsha, who was raised during the worst of the Soweto riots in the 1970s and ’80s, called Mandela “a gift from God.”

“He was blessed with a great mind, wisdom and humility,” she said. “Who on earth would sacrifice that much for his country?”

For some, his passing on Thursday at age 95 is horribly painful because they consider him divine. For others, a today without Mandela is a much less dignified and gracious day than yesterday. The legacy he leaves, though, is one so deep, rich, and interesting that South Africa will continue to benefit from his remarkable achievements for decades ahead. A Mandela tourism industry, a phenomenon that was only budding three years ago during the World Cup, seems poised to flourish.

These are the five Nelson Mandela attractions visitors to South Africa will have to make a point of seeing.

1. Robben Island

This 12-square-kilometre dot of sand and limestone is where Mandela was imprisoned for 18 years of incarceration.

The island is three kilometres off the coast of Cape Town and for many years was miles from humanity. It became known as Mandela University, because the lawyer would educate both inmates and prison guards. Tours that include a round-trip ferry ride and a discussion by a former prisoner cost 400 rand (about $43). From those ex-inmates, you learn about the degradation of apartheid that occurred inside the prison, where the subordination of black political prisoners was constantly reinforced. Prisoners who were Indian or mixed race, for example, would be given six ounces of meat with their dinner, the blacks five.

Mandela’s prison cell attracts a crowd, making it the only lock-up in the world people are eager to get into. They can’t. Its bars remain shut but visitors can step into a similarly cramped pen a few cells down the tight hallway that fills with echoes. Just about everyone who walks in spreads their arms to get a sense of the space. You’ve been in walk-in closets that are larger.

“I could walk the length of my cell in three paces,” Mandela wrote in his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. “When I lay down, I could feel the wall with my feet and my head grazed the concrete at the other side.”

When you leave Robben Island, you can stop at the gift shop to purchase Mandela merchandise, including a “presidential collection” line of shirts similar to those he wore during his presidency. Another set of fashion blares “466/64”, his prison number. It indicates he was the 466th prisoner to arrive on Robben Island in 1964.

2. Vilakazi Street

Possibly the most amazing 900-metre stretch of asphalt on the planet, this street is named after the first black lecturer at Johannesburg’s University of Witwatersrand. Vilakazi Street is the only thoroughfare in the world that’s been home to two Nobel Peace Prize winners, Mandela and Desmond Tutu. Mandela’s house at 8115 Vilakazi is now a museum and a restaurant bearing his name is adjacent. He lived in the house with his former wife, Winnie, and their two children. Soccer City Stadium, host of the 2010 World Cup of Soccer championship game, is 10 kilometres from the street.

3. Sandton


A six-metre bronze statue of Nelson Mandela towers over the square that bears his name in Sandton, north of downtown Johannesburg. (Julia Pelish/Vacay.ca)

One of the wealthiest areas of South Africa, Sandton is on the periphery of Johannesburg and is the financial and shopping centre of the city. A popular square bears Mandela’s name and a six-metre bronze statue of him towers over it. Rather than showing a stoic, stone face, like just about every other bronze sculpture you’ll see of a luminary, Mandela is smiling gregariously, ready to dance — no matter the condition of his circumstance. Also in Sandton is the Liliesleaf Heritage Site, which is related to the Rivonia trial, where Mandela was found guilty of treason and imprisoned in 1963. At Liliesleaf, members of the African National Congress would gather to plan their insurrection against the apartheid regime.

4. The Nelson Mandela Museum

The Mandela Museum is actually three buildings in three locations, but all are related to his formative years in the Transkei region in the province of Eastern Cape. One facility, the Bhunga building in Umtata, reveals Mandela’s life story in his own words. His birthplace is at Mvezo while the museum building in Qunu is in fact a youth and heritage centre. It shows Mandela’s surroundings and what inspired him to pursue law and world-altering strategies.

5. The Voting Line Statue

On April 27, 1994, South Africa held its first democratic elections and Mandela won in a landslide. This 38-metre-long metal sculpture in beautiful Port Elizabeth depicts South Africans on that day, a glorious one, the day that their national leader in spirit and voice became so by official decree.

Mandela is gone, the hope, joy and compassion he brought to the world lives on in these monuments to him. Endeavour to see them yourself one day. They will move you. On his long, punishing walk to freedom, Mandela soared into a place among a pantheon of revered leaders in human history. For such lions, even death is not a match.

[Note: Some portions of this article are excerpted from previous award-winning travel commentary on South Africa published by Adrian Brijbassi]

Adrian is the editor of Vacay.ca and VacayNetwork.com. Adrian has won numerous awards for his travel writing, travel photography, and fiction, and has visited more than 55 countries. He is a former editor at the Toronto Star and New York Newsday, and was the social media and advocacy manager for Destination Canada. His articles have frequently appeared in the Huffington Post, Globe & Mail, and other major publications. He has appeared on national and local broadcasts, talking about travel, sports, creative writing and journalism. In 2019, he launched Trippzy, a travel-trivia app developed to educate consumers about destinations around the world. He also edited "Inspired Cooking", a nutrition-focused cookbook featuring 20 of Canada's leading chefs and in support of the cancer-fighting charity, InspireHealth. "Inspired Cooking" was created in honour of Adrian's late wife and Vacay.ca co-founder, Julia Pelish, who passed away of brain cancer in 2016.

Leave a Reply